Roche’s logistics challenges lead to NHS testing delays in the UK

UK clinicians are being advised to “think carefully” before ordering tests as pharma group Roche is experiencing logistical challenges due to moving to a new warehouse.

Roche’s logistics challenges

Swiss pharma giant Roche released a media statement explaining that “due to a technical issue with the equipment” in the companies new Sussex based Distribution Centre there is “a temporary disruption and some delays in distribution”. The company went on to reassure it’s customers stating:

“This has not and will not affect our ability to supply COVID-19 tests in the UK. We have been in contact with all impacted UK and Ireland customers and are working closely with the NHS in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the HSE in Ireland, to minimise the impact on critical services which rely on our products – including cancer, cardiac and infectious diseases.”

But according to the BBC, the backlog may have an effect on cancer and heart disease studies, among others. One NHS trust has also told its GPs to suspend all non-urgent blood testing in the South West, the BBC reported.

Suspending all non-urgent blood testing

A memo seen by BBC sent to doctors on the inside of a large hospital trust in London said that leaders were “preparing for a sustained disruption.”

“We urgently need all clinical teams to only send tests that are absolutely essential for immediate patient care, delaying testing where possible,” it said.

This may be hard to follow in practice, as one concerned twitter user highlighted:

In it’s media statement Roche said:

“We know how critical our diagnostics products are for our customers and, more importantly for patients, and our team in the UK Distribution Centre is working night and day to ensure normal services are resumed as soon as possible. We are confident that the plans we have put in place will deliver significant improvements by the weekend to the supply of the tests affected by these logistical issues. We will be well on the way to resolution by the end of next week.”

Roche is one of the UK’s largest providers of testing kits and medical supplies. It supplies roughly 5,000 swabs per day to the NHS for COVID-19 testing. UK media outlets have quoted Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, who has said that if the situation goes on for days “it probably will have minimal impact, but if it’s weeks then yes it could have a considerable impact on our ability to deliver tests.”

The Brexit impact on logistics

Some have speculated that the delays in the supply chain are linked to Roche’s preparations for Brexit. The University College London professor of medical imaging science, Derek Hill, said as reported by The Independent :

“They reconfigured their warehousing ahead of Brexit to manage risks of disruption to supply chains arising from the UK’s departure from the EU. It seems there are some logistics problems in the new facilities that are impacting the Covid testing supply chain. Hopefully these issues will be sorted soon before they have a significant impact on testing capacity.”

Roche’s logistics problem highlights the importance of the pharmaceutical and medical device supply chain and raises serious concerns over consequences for patients and trusts in case of a failure to manage this key sector over the Brexit transition effectively. Back in October 2019, even pre-COVID-19, England’s Chief Medical Officer had already warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to potential shortages of vital medical supplies.

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